The kitchen was smothered by night, but quiet and private enough for them to speak without fear of being heard.
The moon through the slats between wooden boards on the windows drew lines across the tiles with an eerie light.
“What did y-you th-think of th-that body?” Poppy’s voice was too loud for Tea’s liking. He shushed her from where he huddled against a kitchen cabinet, cross-legged on the tiles.
“Speak quietly.” He demanded.
Poppy shrugged, and joined him on the floor, seeming perfectly comfortable on the cold surface, whereas Tea shuffled and pulled his knees close in an attempt to stay warm.
“It was torn up and covered in blood.” He said simply, as answer to her question. “That was all.”
The younger girl was quiet, but he felt as though he could feel her peering at him, not believing him.
“You seem-med happ-py.”
“What did you think about it?” He threw back, before she could get any deeper.
“I-It was a dead b-body.” She shuddered, “The prese-e… pres-se… the aura of death hu-ung around i-it. But th-they weren’t th-there.”
“Th-the one wh-who is after m-me.”
“The one who chased you in the woods?” Tea sat forward, intrigued and excited by the direction of the conversation. “Who?”
Poppy did not reply, but under her breath she muttered something odd. Tea only just managed to pick up on it in a fading echo off the tiles.
“They don’t know you? Then why were they chasing you?”
Again, silence, and then,
“M-my blood is un-unclean.”
But nothing more was said on the matter.
The light of the moon on the dirty tiles was lazy in it’s movement, but it had changed it’s position once they spoke again.
“Why talk to me?” Tea asked. “Why not Hellebore? Or Bluebottle?”
“I th-think I can trust y-you.” She muttered instantly, and then paused for thought. “Y-you are hi-hiding th-things, but I th-think y-you are hi-hiding th-them because y-you are afraid.”
Tea was about to protest when she continued,
“Not-not af-fraid like my fath-ther was afr-fraid, but afr-fraid because y-you don’t feel y-you should have to be afr-raid.”
Tea was shocked dumb, and the moon moved another tile, and then blinked out behind a board.
“He-he was n-not a nice man.” Poppy whispered, “I w-would not ask him anyth-thing. He pun-n…pun-nish-sh…pun-n-ish-shed m-me. B-but I can ask y-you.”
In the darkness, Tea’s grey eyes stared widely at her, thinking she must be out of her mind.
“You think you can trust me?”
He heard the slight shuffle of her nodding.
“I would say you’re the first person.” He mumbled, “But I’d be lying, I think. Surprisingly.”
He rubbed his thumbs and forefinger together in discomfort.
“You’re the first to say it, though.”
“D-do you th-think th-they should trust y-you?”
“Does any insignificant orphan think they should be trusted?”
Awkwardly, he tried to smirk at the girl, and briefly, he thought he caught a flash of white from one returned.
He learnt a lot about Poppy that night.
She had lived in the slums all her life, but it was due to a choice that her family had made, and not because of any bad luck.
For many years, her family had practiced scientific experiments. Not long ago, they had been religious scientists, but her father and her grandfather apparently had no faith.
She told this part fearfully, prompting Tea to assure her that he didn’t have a faith either, especially not in the Gardener’s God, so she continued.
Her father was a brutal man, bitter about his fate, bitter about the way the Gardener’s treated the Weeds, and anyone who dared to think that the Gardener’s God was anything other than the one true god.
Tea laughed loudly.
“Well, I like his values!” He chortled, taking a deep breath before he continued, “But I guess he wasn’t acting on them in the right way.”
With caution, Poppy shook her head.
“N-no. I don’t th-think so.” She rubbed her arms up and down, feeling the holes and bruises. Her body shook.
“He did that?” Tea nodded at the marks.
Poppy didn’t respond, except by looking away and gripping her arm where the bruises were, eyes filled with anguish, teeth gritted – the most emotion he had seen her show since he’d caught her crying in the street.
“What are the holes?”
Tea took a moment to realise what she meant.
“He actually… injected you with stuff?” Tea found himself thrilled by the topic – it wasn’t something he found out every day, and speaking about science in such a religious city made his heart beat almost as fast as his dreams did. “Like what?”
Poppy looked up and into his eyes, noting the sparkle to them, through him, then played over the smile that was tugging at his mouth. For minutes she peered at him through the dark, the silence growing longer until the house seemed completely asleep again, even as people began to stir upstairs, even as the sun rose and called to people in the streets to go to the fields to plow and plant and produce.
“I’m-m going to a-ask yo-you a qu-qu-question.” When she finally spoke she surprised him; he had almost lost hope of her continuing the conversation. “Wh-What are y-you hi-hiding?”
Tea was taken aback. He laughed shortly, nervously.
“Why would I have anything to hide?”
“Ev-Everyone who w-walks th-through th-those woods do-does. I-I think.” Poppy shrugged, staring hard into him, and Tea found himself unable to break eye contact. As he looked more, he noticed the veins around the edges of the whites of her eyes, the tense twitches of her shoulders – tense, relaxed, tense, relaxed – and yet she seemed calm. Whereas his heart was thumping painfully within his chest. “Th-The Gardener’s walk th-through th-the woods to h-hide th-their who-whores, th-the Herbs th-their drugs, e-everyone walks th-through to h-hide th-their faith, I’ve se-seen th-them walking past m-my home. I’ve ca-caught a few of th-them when I was w-wild under influ-fluence.”
Tea got to his feet, chewing the inside of his lip.
“I can’t listen to you anymore.” He spat, “I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
As he began to leave, the girl behind him began to shake rapidly, but Tea refused to turn around…
Until, suddenly, Poppy erupted with laughter.
He saw her with a line of morning sunlight illuminating the dark skin of her eyelids, closed with the force of her laughter.
It was a laugh like her speech – stuttering, raucous, gnawing right down to his bones and rattling them with irritation- and it wasn’t stopping.
She’s going to wake the whole orphanage! He thought, exasperated.
“Shut up.” He hissed, “Shut up.”
“A-Are you af-fraid of me?” She snorted, “A-Are you regre-regretting s-saving m-me?”
“Why would I be afraid of you?”
“Do y-you regr-gret it?”
Tea bit his tongue to stop himself from reacting to the taunt. She was trying to get him worked up. She knew something. She knew something.
“Why would I be afraid of you?”
She shrugged, wrapping her arms around her legs as she pulled them up to her chest, laugh dying away.
“I-I don’t know. B-Because y-y-you think I-I kn-know things I-I d-d-don’t? Y-You tell m-me.”
Tea was taken aback.
Could she really see what people were thinking with that eye of hers?
Tea felt suspicion creeping through her bones. Was she not just a sorry little girl, beaten and frail and scared?
His thoughts raged like a violent wind ripping through a forest.
In his fury, he stormed up the stairs and away from her, before he really could regret his decision to save her.